The majorly major thing that's cool about this excellently-realized single-rackspace eight-channel mic+line preamp/DI/FireWire computer interface/monitor is what I'd call the "Fairy Godmother" factor: all your wishes are granted, and just enough of each one so as not to play favorites or stomp on competing wishes, because some of your wishes are contradictory. [Holy cow, that's quite a mouthful! -AH] If I have to start somewhere, I'll start with a telling detail.
There is visual level metering on every channel. It's not just "signal present" and "clip", it's four LEDs that give a nicely fluid and informative picture of any activity above -30 dB. Right away immediately, you can tell at a glance where everything stands; you don't even need to glance anywhere else. Also telling-the great blessing of a built-in monitor, and the monitoring is phenomenal, a study in minimalism that succeeds beyond all reason. There is a headphone out that gives you: (a) eight preamps, in mono or stereo hard-panned sets (1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8); (b) eight D/A converter outputs from the computer in the same sets-of-two; or (c) a selectable mix-and-match combo of the two. In other words, the headphone output can give you zero-latency monitoring of signals being recorded, mixed together with already-recorded tracks from your DAW. The sonic quality of this summed mono/stereo signal is terrifically expansive, detailed, and revealing-it was just like listening on a monitor. And it's capable of deafening levels-you don't need to worry about that. I SAID, "YOU DON'T NEED TO WORRY ABOUT THAT!" Point being: there is one headphone out. There is one knob that controls the mono/stereo levels. Four buttons to switch from preamps to D/As. And with just the slightest creativity with setting levels and monitoring, you can go on and craft whatever elaborate multitrack creations you can imagine (the unit ships with Steinberg's Cubase LE 4 for Mac or PC), recording eight tracks at once if you want to, through eight discrete Class A preamps, where every channel has a low-cut filter, a pad, a phase invert, and two of them have instrument DIs. And the digital-to-analog and vice versa conversion processing (rates up to 96 kHz) is comparable to... uh... help me out, here, Andy!
I used this for a preproduction session with an acoustic trio-think of the Everly Brothers with a third kid brother. All singers, all guitarists, with some mandolin and percussion thrown in. The first thing that became apparent-if you have a mic that can deliver a solid low end, this TubeFire will bag it up. You will, I repeat will, be using the lowcut filter off and on, but no worries, it has a nice sweet slope that starts dipping at 100 Hz, moderating out the excess baggage while leaving the sound natural-sounding. And if it sounds natural, it is-right? Dynamic mics in particular sounded glorious through the TubeFire, with heightened definition and presence. The 70 dB worth of gain is plenty for even shy ribbon mics. Collectively too, the "mixes" from these sessions, recorded directly from the balanced outs onto an Alesis HD24XR, had a great and wonderful "reality" to them, but then sometimes it's the quick mixes that have a magic you'll never get by laboring over things.
However much you want to argue-and I hope you will-that these "starved-plate" tube arrangements where the tubes are powered at 50 volts (and are really an effect, to dial in) as opposed to real, United Nations-approved tube preamps that run at 300 volts, go for it; draft a treaty or something. It certainly is a dastardly fraud and all that. That's missing the point. Tubes-any tubes-are a multi-tasking boon to the digital world. Not only do they inherently "tame the harshness", they guarantee against overloads by reaching "compressor-style" limits of their own-I mean in a way of speaking. By jockeying back and forth between the two gain knobs for each channel, you can dial in the second-order harmonics from the starved-plate tube, or just leave it as clean gain. At times in this session I had both of them pegged, and that's when it really sounded great. The only values noted on these knobs are the minimum and maximum, and the output knob does double duty as a mute. It's much more common to chart the incremental values along the path of a knob, but with just a series of dots to look at, I found myself really listening to the source to determine the proper level. I don't know if this is just me, or some self-conscious mind-control on the part of ART, or some trivial, meaningless detail. The DIs are exquisite for bass guitar, which reminds me I have a Dual MP from 1998 that still gets used as a bass DI.
I'm glad you brought up the Dual MP. I had a friend in the early 1990s who set up a "recording studio" at the edge of town, in the living room of his house. This was the dawn of when you could truly craft radio-ready recordings on a shoestring, anywhere. He had a pretty impressive array of gear all going into one blackface ADAT. A lot of it was ART, as I recall; this was their gray and pink era when everything had that "spraypainted with graffiti" look. Four-channel gates, the whole thing, even the mixing board was an ART design. I was inspired to get the Dual MP when I set up shop, with the "indescribably delicious ART sound" or whatever they said. Comparing the specs of that vintage piece to the TubeFire, THD has gone from 0.1% to 0.015%. Frequency response, from 10 Hz-20 kHz to 12 Hz-65 kHz. Equivalent noise has even skittered down from -129 dB to -130 dB. That was two channels, this is eight. That was analog out only, this has that plus digital over FireWire. And the well-designed monitoring system, don't forget. In some ways, it wasn't that long ago, and in other ways, it's like it's been billions of years. You've come a long, long way. ($530 street; www.artproaudio.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.